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Panel rejects claim

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By KEVIN P. CRAVER

kcraver@nwherald.com

WOODSTOCK - It took the city's three-member Ethics Commission an hour Friday to dismiss a rural Woodstock man's allegation that a city council resolution supporting the District 200 referendum violated city code.

The hearing likely would have been longer had complainant Jerry Sufranski attended, and commission members said his absence did not help his cause.

"That's his loss," City Manager and commission member Tim Clifton said. "He obviously didn't take his complaint very seriously."

Sufranski, who lives outside the city but within District 200, said Thursday evening that he would not be attending because of other business. Attempts to contact him Friday were unsuccessful.

Sufranski named all five council members and City Attorney Richard Flood in his March 9 complaint. He alleged a Feb. 7 resolution supporting the school referendum violated city code forbidding elected officials from soliciting and campaigning for a referendum on compensated time. The council resolution also encouraged residents to vote and "consider the benefits" to the community when doing so, but did not outright tell residents to vote yes.

The referendum, which permitted District 200 to sell $105 million in building bonds, passed on Tuesday with 57.6 percent of the vote, according to unofficial totals.

State law required governments in 2004 to draft ethics ordinances in accordance with its own to curtail political activity by government employees on taxpayer-funded time. Friday marked the first time that the city convened its ethics commission, consisting of Clifton, Police Chief Robert Lowen and chairwoman Denise Graff Ponstein, a local businesswoman who Mayor Brian Sager selected as the third member for the hearing.

Flood, who represented himself and the council, told the commissioners that the state law was never meant to curtail political speech by the council.

"It was never, ever, ever intended to tell people with the responsibility of running this town what they can say in a public meeting and to muzzle them in some way," Flood said. "It just wasn't intended for that, and to read it that way is silly."

Ponstein agreed with Flood, both of whom said that the ordinance forbids, "working, managing, campaigning and soliciting" for or against referendums, not a council resolution.

"Is [the resolution] soliciting votes?" Ponstein said. "Were they soliciting votes, were they campaigning, were they managing or working on [the referendum]? If you read the code of ethics that way, I don't see that passing this resolution did that at all."

Ponstein's appointment to the commission raised some eyebrows, given her long association with District 200 as a former employee and referendum supporter. She owns Indepth Graphics & amp; Printing, which does business with both the city and the school district, and helped found the weekly Woodstock Independent newspaper. She sold her interest in the newspaper in October 2005.

Ponstein said after the hearing that her ruling was based solely on the evidence presented and the merits of the argument.

Commissioners could have taken action against Sufranski under the ethics ordinance for filing a baseless claim, which could carry up to a $5,000 fine. The commission rejected the idea, and Clifton said he welcomed the public hearing to discuss the ethics law.

What it means

The Ethics Commission ruled on Friday that a Woodstock city council resolution supporting District 200's referendum effort did not violate the city's ethics code. As of Friday, the Illinois Attorney General's office had not received a complaint, spokesman Scott Mulford said.

On the Web

Minutes from city meetings and the city code can be found on the city's Web site at www.woodstock-il.com.

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